When a nursing mom is a commercial airline pilot

When Shannon Kiedrowski was hired as a first officer for Frontier Airlines in 2002, she not only landed her dream job but felt she had beaten the odds by breaking into a heavily male-dominated profession. Only about 10 percent of U.S. airline pilots and flight engineers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kiedrowski's personal life took off, too. She eventually fell in love, got married and decided to have a baby. That's when Kiedrowski began to encounter some turbulence on the job, and not just the kind that rattles passengers' nerves.

Frontier Airlines' maternity policy for pilots allows for 120 days of unpaid leave, but Kiedrowski says its female pilots can't afford to take that time off because they're forced to take mandatory unpaid leave at least eight weeks before giving birth.

On top of that, the airline doesn't make accommodations for new mothers to pump breast milk after they return to work, said Kiedrowski, who made do by using airport family restrooms prior to reporting for duty and pumping again in aircraft lavatories right after landing.

"Upon arrival at the destination airport, I'd go to the aircraft lavatory and pump again, while cleaners, flight attendants and possibly the other pilot bang on the door because I am in there for 15 minutes, sometimes longer," said Kiedrowski, in a written statement recounting her experience.

Earlier this week, Kiedrowski and three other female Frontier pilots lodged discrimination complaints against the airline with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Holwell Shuster & Goldberg on behalf of the pilots, the complaints claim that the company's policies discriminate against women by failing to provide accommodations related to pregnancy and breast-feeding.

Jackie Peter, vice president of labor relations for Denver-based Frontier, which is owned by private equity firm Indigo Partners, said the airline's maternity leave policy is a product of its collective bargaining agreement with its pilots' union.

The complaints ask the EEOC to require Frontier to take steps to make it easier for pregnant pilots and pilots who are breast-feeding, including allowing the latter to pump on the aircraft when necessary. But Peter said allowing a female pilot to pump breast milk during a flight, either in a lavatory or on the flight deck, is a safety concern.

She noted that when one pilot leaves a cockpit during flight, the remaining pilot must put on an oxygen mask and be joined by a flight attendant, which means there's one less person to attend to passengers.

What's more, having a pilot away from the flight deck for an extended period could be problematic in the event of an emergency, she said. Pumping in the cockpit, she added, could also prove embarrassing and distracting to other crew members.

Peter said Frontier has provided pilots with contact information for staff at various airports who help can them access offices for pumping, and in some locations it has identified private spaces that can be used. She added that pilots get plenty of advance notice of their upcoming schedules and should be able to avail themselves of these options.

"As an airline, safety is first and foremost in our minds every day, and we believe this involves a safety issue," said Peter.

The complaints against Frontier come as no surprise to Liz Morris, deputy director at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. Employers, said Morris, still aren't doing enough to accommodate nursing mothers despite legal mandates at the federal level and in some states. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires employers to provide "reasonable break time" and space (other than a bathroom) for women to pump breast milk at work.

"We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to employers making accommodations for nursing mothers," said Morris.

She points to a recent study by the University of Minnesota that found fewer than half (40 percent) of breast-feeding mothers who return to work after giving birth say they're given both adequate break time for pumping and private (non-bathroom) space at their workplaces.

When it comes to workplace accommodations for pregnant women, the situation is better, said Morris, but not great. Such accommodations may include more-frequent breaks, time off for prenatal doctor visits or less lifting.

According to a survey commissioned by the National Partnership for Women & Families, most employers have honored requests for "reasonable" pregnancy-related accommodations, but women are sometimes reluctant to ask or are denied when they do. About a quarter-million requests for pregnancy-related accommodations are denied each year, according to the study.

"Not all women who need accommodations for pregnancy actually ask for them. That may be because some people don't know their rights or are fearful of retaliation or discrimination," explained Morris.

Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, employers must treat "women affected by pregnancy," childbirth or related medical conditions, such as lactation, the same as "other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."

In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received about 3,500 complaints alleging pregnancy discrimination, down from some 4,000 in 2010. But Morris said the Center for WorkLife Law has found that the number of pregnancy and lactation-accommodation lawsuits against employers in recent years has grown significantly. The center plans to release its findings next week.

Some women appear to be better off depending on where they live and, of course, where they work. In a study by the National Partnership for Women & Families, thirty-one states got a grade of 'D' or 'F' for their laws governing workplace rights for new parents. California, by the way, got an A-minus.

In terms of female job satisfaction by industry, the aerospace, transportation and pharmaceutical industries are among the lowest-scoring sectors in a ranking by Fairygodboss. The top-three industries were public relations, consulting services and information services.

"Generally, I think women who work in male-dominated sectors are more likely to face discrimination," said Morris, "and we know that low-wage women are having a harder time as well."